We animals are frequently surprisingly similar and identifying those differences can be really difficult. Furriness or our perceptions built around our relationships can confuse the information and make it hard to see. Skinny legs supporting big bodies or building on larger scale where the weight of the clay is a huge issue cause a lot of problems.
This is the same technique I now use for making heads. A simple clay armature supports the weight throughout the build and gives you a central point that you can work outwards from, allowing that most important key to success: making loads of mistakes and fixing them. You get to avoiding hollowing out so that you can play around with textures while you are building. And you will be using the process to re-organise the information in your head: there is no better way to do that than hands-on.
The skeleton is a stick-figure with the proportions (so important when you are being species specific) set out clearly and unambiguously. Fur, muscle shapes changing with the pose and fore-shortening in photos can confuse leading to sculptures that are cross between lifeless amateur taxidermy and stuffed toys.
The key reason making forms from life is so hard is that the perception (the way we take in our knowledge) that we have built up over our lifetime of what shape the thing is, is based around our general experience of that animal. Making a sculpture of that living, moving, person requires going against what ‘feels’ right and using information we are unlikely to have bothered with before. Portraiture has a system to organise the huge quantity of subtle details. Learning this system will broaden your knowledge, and your access to more knowledge, enormously. That’s why the study of Portraiture and Figurative Sculpture is traditionally the bed-rock of Art.
The more you practice these invaluable skills the more you will see improvement in all your artwork, your general concentration and your ability to see. Like a pianist ‘doing scales’ you will build up the small muscles, motor-skills and neural pathways involved in this challenging, rewarding activity.
It is not rocket science and you can do it.
Because clay shrinks as it dries and is floppy when very wet a Clay Armature that will support and shrink with the form through the drying and the firing is invaluable.
Most techniques for building hollow have a strong ‘voice’ of their own and will influence the final look of the piece. They can demand that you harden lower sections before you can build upwards and you are then unable to change them when you later realise they are wrong. This is a real disadvantage irregardless of your skill level. It is better to work solid over a clay armature especially if you are not using a scale-model and hollow out just before finishing touches. It’s not difficult. That technique is detailed here: Working solid and hollowing out.
Working solid is an excellent method. You set aside the ceramic need for certain thicknesses in the clay until you are sure you have the best sculpture you can make at that point. The armature holds the weight up. Some areas can be built hollow too.
I was really lucky to run this workshop over two days at the wonderful North Devon Ceramics Academy and Studio. Nicola Crocker and Taz Pollard have created a fantastic, fun, supportive and practical space for learning and sharing creativity in clay. I absolutely love teaching there. Nicola and Taz have a very genuine commitment to empowering other people and sharing their open and imaginative approach to the vast potential within ceramics. The Studio is spacious, bright and comfortable and the atmosphere is friendly, unpretentious and very encouraging.
This amazing group of all experience levels were a joy to work with. And they came up with some great improvements to the technique. You will also adapt it to suit your hands and ideas.
We are using the out-standing Scarva ES50 Crank clay (a stoneware clay with a lot of grog – ground up ceramic grits- in a variety of sizes from corse to dust making it much easier to hand-build with) because of the way it reacts with water and it’s superb strength when hard and also when dry. You can use different clays for the armature but using the same one means everything shrinks at the same rate during drying and firing.
Many thanks to Nicola Crocker for the great photos of the workshop.
Print out skeleton images of your animal, ideally in the same scale as you wish to make your sculpture, images of the whole animal and images of that animal in the pose you want. On to a stiff slab that will be your central support, carefully draw the skeleton.
This is an important opportunity to get your head around this animals construction. You can trace through the skeleton using pin-pricks or pressure. But measuring from the diagram to transfer the image will begin the process of clarifying your knowledge of the animal for the purpose of sculpture.
The skeleton is set clearly in a simple to read pose. The sketch is the pose desired. On the clay slab the skeleton is set in the pose. This is not easy to do, takes time and is a huge investment in your sculpture’s foundation and in your skills.
Using stiff slabs, stand your central support up ensuring it is nice and stable. Make good joins: while much of this supporting armature will be cut away eventually some of it will remain and be useful during the firing. Build outwards using images of the animal to assess the widths. Use comparative measurements: the ribcage is twice the width of the head etc.
A narrow standing figure like a meercat will need something to support him or he will be and almost worst, look, very fragile. In the figurative tradition acceptable motifs are employed: think of those little shrubberies at the ankles of classic marble nudes. Or you can add a second figure and get support, a fascinating narrative and lots of fab negative shapes into the bargain.
Supports can added and removed all through the process. This wonderful student, herself a teacher came up with several practical and useful ways to improve this technique.
If you are comfortable doing it, build hollow. Or add the clay on solid. At this stage you are still building the frame-work for the sculpture: disciplined measurements will give you a great foundation that will give life to the artwork stage.
This piece is all about the energy and character of this squirrel. The ‘fluffy tail’ can be a meaningless cliche and has not been used here.
Work right around the form in layers giving full attention to the whole sculpture at each rotation. It is extremely important that you are always will to cut off parts that are wrong no matter how long you worked on them. A beautifully crafted eye will look grotesque in the wrong place.
Once your form is completely ‘ blocked out, with all proportions correct switch to using tools to apply the clay rather than fingers. You will get a more attractive, stronger surface and can be more specific. A good habit is to go all around adding. Then all around subtracting, repeat until you can’t see what else could be done better at this point in your progression. Then hollow if necessary. Then do finishing touches (with small tools) Then poke a needle hole into any area that might contain trapped air.
Add other types of supports if useful but remember they wont shrink with the form during drying.
Making birds is notoriously difficult because of their insane relationship with gravity. Work slowly in stages allowing the parts to firm up and add to the support system. Remove your clay-armature cautiously in small stages.
This flying bird will be set on a base as yet un-determined. The armature holds the pose well on this very tricky piece allowing it to change and develop.
This flexible technique can take you places you had thought of. Here the internal space has become part of the sculpture.
Because the weight is supported and the skeleton provides strong boundaries you can play and feel your way around the form. The finished piece will need it’s own supports but here you can try various alternatives until you are happy with the look, strength and feel.
Lots more trial and error will happen to this fascinating bird-scape in the next weeks.
Take breaks, look out side to clear your eyes then glance at your sculpture and note what you first notice. If you hit a wall with it cover with a bag and walk away! I sometimes leave sculpture wrapped for months. I check regularly to mist with water and see if I can move forward again. Taking photos can be a good way to get some perspective. Ask others ‘what they see’ and compare that to what you want them to see. A dog that looks like a donkey has too big a head for example.
A wonderful form where negative shapes play a stunning role. Their grace and movement is enchanting and very tricky to capture.
Five points of contact with the ground could give this piece stability but at this small scale those legs and feet are still so small. This elegant solution, where the central support is tidied up attractively and immediately becomes neutral, eliminates the distracting fragility.
This animal is iconic and has held it’s place in art for Millenia. It’s bulky form and thick fur can easily be over generalised into a blob on sticks. Here the skeleton secures the integrity of the structure. This sculpture is about his power and movement.
This piece will be completely cut away from it’s supports once it is firm to retain it’s shape, rested on foam and a hole made for a metal pin and base that will show off it’s galloping form.
The details of the face should be in balance with the rest of the sculpture. At this small scale it is also a mistake to try and put on complicated detail. It will take a lot of time to find what can be left out. The skull will give you the clues: it is the structure of the face that matters.
Cats are extraordinarily flexible and their exterior hides their structure. Making pets can be very difficult because we have so much knowledge of them that can cloud the sculptural information. Use the skeleton to keep on track with proportions that our nutty perceptions may think are similar to humans!
A beautiful, gentle way to address the eyes expressively in keeping with the form.
This student had gorgeous pictures of her adorable young dog, especially his loving face. But at this small scale she focussed on his movement and energy to portray him. She will paint his distinctive markings on in colour.
Keep re-checking those measurements at every stage.
The armature is cut away (but continues to function usefully inside). Needle holes will be poked up into the form to vent all the air pockets made by building hollow. Then a hole will be placed for a wooden dowel set in a base to display this dog leaping as he runs.
These little guys have tiny feet and very slender legs. You could build some grass or rocks around their lower legs to give stability. Or add a friend.
Like the giraffe parts of the support wall could remain and no-one would notice because the charm of these characters and their friendship is far more engaging.
This up-right stance gives similar problems to the meercats but the way otters stand gives plenty of attachment to the base.
An otter’s simple form can be very difficult to capture. His gesture and poses are well recognised so that helps. Starting with the skeleton puts the key points of his body in the right place under that silky fur. There is a lovely change in loose to very smooth modelling on the surface that recalls water running off the fur.
Like many big herbivores horses have surprises in their skeletons that are key to their shape. A rig of spurs along the spine limits over-flexing but also keeps predator teeth away from the precious spinal column. It defines their characteristic silhouette. The skull seems bizarre but get that blocked in well and the head will look great, even in a small scale.
Follow the transition points of the legs very carefully. Note how those big neck muscles cross and attach behind the shoulder blades. At this stage it is almost as if the legs are just attached to the edge of the body but you now know those leg bones go right up near the spine and have a wide range of movement which can be gauged by measuring the length of a bone and pivoting it from it’s socket. It was suggested that you could cut up a spare skeleton in order to make a hinged ‘shadow puppet’ that could be helpful in designing the pose from a standing skeleton.
These guys go well above and beyond not to look like animals all! They have extraordinary skeletons, well worth studying. But it has to be said that apart from proportions the hard shell-like outer skin means you see no clues of it showing on the armadillo’s surface. Their shell is a very subtle, beautiful shape with exquisite patterns.
This student did all the skeleton work as part of the workshop. But then he switched to working solid/hollowing out as a technique far better suited to armadillos.
On solid clay use your skeleton to identify the right proportions.
Use a serrated kidney tool to shape the body. Then use a flat wide modelling tool to add clay and further refine that gently undulating form.
Your central, weight-bearing support does not need to be flat/straight: Both of these abstracts were built outwards from a stiffened curvy up-right central shape of various thickness set on a metal rod.
Antarctic Harbinger III, 26cm H x 37cm W x19cm D.
Antarctic Leviathan, 45cm L x 23cm H x 12cm D.
Genuine joins are formed when the chains of platelet-shaped particles from each section inter-lock. Picture a magnified image of hair.
Score marks do not give the surface ‘tooth’; they allow water into the clay-body. On vertical surfaces they hold the water in place to give it time to sink in.
Slip is not ‘glue’, it is clay particles spread out in water and has little strength, especially when it has dried. It is ideal for holding a lot of water in place to give it time to be absorbed to soften the area of leather-hard clay.
Once both edges are softened put the pieces back together and move back and forth until you feel the edges lock together.
Manipulate the softened clay at the join to encourage further integration of those particle-chains and to disturb the straight line of the join; cracks love to zing along a nice straight slip-weakened join during the firing when the pull of shrinking stresses the sculpture.
How thick the clay can be to fire well depends on the amount of grog (the gritty bits of pre-fired clay ground to specific sized grit/dust that gives improved structure and resilience to your clay), the denseness of your modelling style, drying time and the speed of your firing.
Air bubbles trapped in the clay will expand with the heat. Grog and/or a loose surface will allow the air to seep through the clay. The same is true with water but steam expands fast. If your piece breaks into big bits during the fire it was trapped air and you will be able to see where the bubbles were in the shards. If it blows up into a trillion smithereens it wasn’t properly dry!
I dry thick sculptures slowly under plastic which I turn inside out ( to avoid condensation pooling) daily for 4 weeks minimum and then 1-2 weeks in a plastic tent with a dehumidifier. A card-board box makes a great, slow, draft-free drying chamber.A long dry allows the water to level out as water loves to do and that will enhance the structure of the clay within it’s new sculpture shape. You will get less cracks or distorting in the fire.
I fire very slowly with an 18 degree C rise until 600 degrees C. then onto full power up to the desired temperature.
Generally 3cm is a fair maximum thickness for a well grogged clay.
There is good essential advice about handling clay on the post about Coil Building.
How To Make a Head is essentially the same method and you will find it helpful. It talks about human heads but of corse is relevant to all heads apart from the handy option of being able to measure with callipers from your own.